THE SAVIOUR OF SINNERS
by Frank James
“And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God. And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar, And saying, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself. And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:33-43).
A DAY OF DEATH
The death of the Lord Jesus Christ, which occurred between two criminals, was the crowning work of God’s purpose of grace in the salvation of His people. The Roman rulers, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel along with their leaders; consented together to put Jesus Christ to death by a cruel crucifixion. Yet unknown to them, they were fulfilling what God had before determined to be done (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). For it was through the death of His Son, that God would redeem His people unto Himself. And through His perfect sacrifice, Christ would save His people from their sins (Matt 1:21). The fact that He was crucified between two criminals was in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 53:12). Much can be learned about sin and salvation from this account in the book of Luke concerning the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. For we see that even in death, even as His hands and feet were nailed to the tree, He manifested the grace of God and showed Himself to be the only Saviour of sinners.
We learn from Matthew’s account of this same event, that these two criminals were thieves (Matt 27:44). Little is known about them, but it seems apparent that they had been tried in a court of law for their crimes, were found guilty, and had been in prison awaiting execution. When it was determined that Jesus Christ would be crucified, these two thieves were executed with Him.
These two men, one on the right hand and the other on the left hand, can be seen as representatives of all humanity as to our standing in the sight of God. For God has declared in His Word that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Their condition and circumstance as they were crucified is a perfect illustration of every person’s condition before God as a sinner. Let us examine some aspects of this.
First, we know that these two men were lawbreakers, and had refused to live under the requirements of the laws of the Roman Empire. Likewise, the Bible declares that every person is lawless and disobedient in regard to the law of God. We are all transgressors and refuse to submit ourselves to the rule of God and His righteousness. We have rebelled against God, we have become His enemies, and we have gone our own way doing what is right in our own eyes. The Bible declares, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl 8:11). While the evil that we commit is manifested in many different ways in our lives, it is all sin in the sight of God. See also (Rom 1:29-32; 3:9-18).
Second, these two men were condemned and found guilty by a lawful court. The Word of God also teaches how that every person is condemned and guilty under the justice of God for our sins. “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom 3:19). This means simply that God has pronounced us all guilty. Further, He has already sentenced us under the just requirements of the law, because the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6:23). The trial is over, the sentence is passed, and all that awaits us at death is the execution of the sentence, which is eternal separation from God in the lake of fire. This is the meaning of Christ’s words to Nicodemus. “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:18-19). Dear reader, do you realize that you are condemned already, and that your only hope is in the crucified Saviour?
Third, it was impossible for these two thieves to do anything about their condition. Their hands and feet were nailed to a stake. They were condemned to die. They couldn’t amend their ways, turn over a new leaf, or reform their lives. So it is with every person before God. We are condemned under the penalty of the law and we are helpless to do anything about our condition. Many hope that by reforming their lives, or by trying to be a better person, that this will somehow help them to become accepted before God. Some attempt to change themselves by religion or by joining a church. Others are trusting in their baptism or good works to secure a place for them in heaven. But, dear reader, do you not know that you are under the death sentence. You are bound by the cords of your sins, just as these two men were nailed to the stake. “Jesus answered them, Verily, Verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34). Our only hope is in the crucified Saviour.
A DYING SAVIOUR
Most of the people present could not see how that Jesus Christ could ever save anyone. After all, He was nailed to a stake, bleeding, and soon to die. For this reason the people mocked and ridiculed Him. They were ignorant of the fact that through His death, Christ was making a perfect and complete sacrifice for sin, thereby accomplishing the redemption of every one of God’s people (Heb 10:7-14). This was His purpose for coming into the world. “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Through His death He brought victory over sin and death, and having accomplished this, He was raised again from death after three days and three nights. He was exalted to the right hand of the Father in heaven, there waiting to reign upon the throne of David over His earthy Kingdom (Luke 1:31-33). Christ paid the penalty for all of the sins of all of God’s elect people, thereby securing eternal life for them, and qualifying Himself to be the only Saviour of sinners.
A CHANGED HEART
One of the most remarkable things about the death of the Lord between these two criminals is that one of thieves had a change of heart towards Christ during the time that the three of them were crucified. It is recorded by Matthew that both of the thieves railed upon Christ at the beginning of their crucifixion. “Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth” (Matt 27:41-44). What was it that changed one of the thieves from a mocker to a believer in Christ? He had not yet seen any of the great miracles that occurred on that day, for it was about the sixth hour, or about noon, when he made his request to the Lord. This was just before the three hours of darkness, (Luke 23:44) and before the earthquake (Matt 27:50-53). He was saved, therefore, by the grace of God through faith. For it is only by a miraculous work of God’s grace that a heart of stone can be changed and opened to “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor 4:6). Like Lydia, “whose heart the Lord opened” (Acts 16:14), this man had a changed attitude towards Christ. Before, he mocked Him as the King of the Jews; but now he trusted that the Lord would reign in His kingdom. He had ridiculed Christ as the Son of God and the Saviour, but now he believed with His whole heart that He was indeed the Christ of God, with the ability to give eternal life.
REPENTANCE AND FAITH
In our present day, repentance and faith are greatly misunderstood and even declared to be non- essential in many religious circles. Others have made them to be mere exercises of the flesh, rather than the spiritual graces that they are. However, repentance and faith are both gifts of God (Eph 2:8-9) (Acts 5:31) (II Tim 2:25), and evidences of the new birth (Eph 1:19). Both of these gifts of grace are clearly and distinctly evidenced in the words that this thief spoke, first to the other thief and then to Christ. First, his repentance (which is a change of heart and mind which resulted in a change of his actions) was manifested in his rebuke to the other criminal. “But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Doth not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss” (Luke 23:40-41). Second, his faith was manifested by his request to the Lord Jesus Christ. “And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). This was an expression of complete trust and confidence. He believed and knew that Christ was the “Lord”, that He would rise again from the dead, and enter into His kingdom. By this faith, he was saved. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Dear reader, have you seen your lost condition and just condemnation before God? Have you seen your need of Jesus Christ as this thief did as the only Saviour of sinners?
The salvation of this criminal exposes many false ideas as to how sinners are saved. We learn that they are saved completely apart from any works of their own, for this thief did not have any good works. We also learn that salvation is not through religious works such as baptism, church membership, or any kind of religious ceremony, because this thief did not partake in any such things. Instead, we see that sinners are completely without strength to do anything about their lost condition. Also, we learn that God is sovereign in the salvation of sinners. That is, He saves who it pleases Him to save (Rom 9:11-24). Two men were crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ. They were both the same in that they were both thieves and sinners who mocked Him; however, one was saved while the other was left to his just condemnation. This shows us that God will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy. We also see two more truths here manifested; that “whosoever calleth upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:13), and that sinners will never call upon the Lord who do not first believe in Him (Rom 10:14). For while one thief believed and called upon Christ as his Saviour, the other thief did not believe and remained a mocker. Further, we learn from this example that a new birth resulting in a new heart is essential and necessary to salvation (John 3:3,5).
Last, we can see from these verses in Luke 23 that Christ is a merciful Saviour who prayed for those who crucified Him. He receives with joy and gladness all who come to Him in repentance and faith (John 6:37). Dear reader, may it please the God of all grace to open your heart today, to see your lost and condemned condition, and to reveal the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of sinners. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).